Stress Management in the Workplace

Are your wellbeing programs providing relief from the symptoms of stress in the workplace or giving people the skills to tackle the root cause?

When you evaluate a situation, you make a quick judgment based on three things:

  1. How it will affect you
  2. How important it is to you
  3. Whether you have the capability/resources to overcome the difficulty

Psychologists call this process cognitive appraisal. If a situation is important to you, but you doubt your capability/resources, it can cause you to feel more stressed. Stress is perceived; it is not the situation itself that causes stress but rather your interpretation of it. Realising that your interpretation of events rather than the event itself causes stress is the start of a transformation.

Stress Can Be a Good Thing

Stress is a biological response to perceived danger, changing both your mind and your body so you can deal with what is in front of you. Stress can be a wake-up call in your body, getting you ready to perform. Interpreted correctly, it supports you to take a task seriously, providing motivation and focus to work hard. It’s the “fight” part of the so-called fight-or-flight response.

Alternatively, stress might be so debilitating that you freeze or run away from the job at hand.

These reactions are ingrained in us by nature and evolution to protect us from short-term (usually) physical danger. Prolonged stress, however, can be harmful to our thinking, health, and overall wellbeing. Many people are experiencing prolonged stress at the moment, quietly, under the surface, behind the scenes.

Common Causes of Stress in the Workplace

There is plenty of research out there; it’s not new, and it’s conclusive. The significant factors are:

  • Heavy workload
  • Poor management
  • Poor culture

Work is only one dimension of life. Add to that other pressures in our lives:

  • Relationships
  • Conflict within a family
  • Cost of living
  • Rising expectations of society
  • Media and marketing

Yes, media and marketing. Marketing teams will talk in terms of targeting a customer’s needs and fulfilling that need. Another way to look at it is that marketing’s task is to create anxiety in you that can only be relieved by making a purchase.

These are just a few examples of situations that people can perceive as stressful. However, everyone is different according to their mindset, emotional awareness, and experiences. You might look at the lists above and feel stress start to creep in just by looking at them. The very thought of it may fill you with dread. For others, what bothers you might not bother them.

Mismanaging Stress Over Time Can Lead To Burnout, Anxiety, Depression, And Ill-Health

Most of us know that stress and wellbeing are connected. Mismanaging stress in the moment impacts performance. Stress speeds things up or slows them down. It can be an accelerator or debilitating, pushing you forward or backward, depending on your interpretation of the event.

Circumstantial Stress vs. Chronic Stress

So, stress can be motivating or debilitating. I am probably telling you something you already know, although getting you to stop and think can make a huge difference. But stress can also be circumstantial or chronic. Stress often occurs in response to circumstances, and so the stress is short-term, resolving when the circumstances change. However, if:

  • Those circumstances continue, or
  • The feelings of stress continue after the circumstances have changed, or
  • You feel stressed at the smallest circumstances,

These are signs of chronic stress. If you stop for a moment and think about it, do you recognize any in yourself? Are you starting to recognize it in the people you support? This simple truth makes stress a boardroom agenda item. If it’s not on yours yet, it should be.

Stress Can Be a Gentle Fizz Rather Than an Overt, Explosive Reaction

If I asked you to draw or describe someone stressed, you would probably draw someone pulling their hair out or clenched up and tight. But stress can be a gentle fizz, ongoing under the surface and never going away. I think of stress like a can of soft drink. On the exterior, everything looks calm, but if agitated and shaken up, would you want to open the ring pull?

Stress Management In The Workplace Tends To Focus On Mitigating The Symptoms Rather Than Addressing The Causes

Think of the current wellbeing programmes that your organisation offers. Are they focusing on providing short-term relief from stress, or do they focus on changing the circumstances? Unfortunately, most tend to focus on the temporary relief (and there is nothing wrong with that) but do not remove the causes of stress. Instead, they provide comfort from the symptoms, failing to address the underlying issue. The danger of this approach is two-fold:

  1. The cumulative effect over time turns circumstantial stress into chronic stress.
  2. It places the emphasis away from the employer to the employee. It potentially sends a message that you can be stress-free as long as you work hard enough to benefit from the packages on offer.

Are these the outcomes you were hoping for?

Not All Knowledge Is the Same

Rather than practicing new skills, we tend to build up an ever-increasing database of declarative knowledge rather than procedural knowledge. We know what we need to do but not necessarily how to do it. Many organizational training programs give people information and build up declarative knowledge, which doesn’t translate into procedural knowledge. These programs measure success in terms of “happy sheets” with no focus on return on investment. Because in reality, they have only measured declarative improvements and not procedural.

Mental Health First Aid and the Stress Container

I’m a big fan of anything that supports people, and I’m a mental health advocate, so when I say what I am about to say next, please bear that in mind. Mental health first aid is just that—designed to help people when they need it and help smash the stigma of poor mental health. It is why the “stress container” metaphor used in mental health first aid emphasises finding relief from circumstantial stress.

If you have not come across the stress bucket model before, here is a quick summary:

  • Imagine you have a container you carry around with you that gradually fills up as you experience stress.
  • If you are experiencing high amounts of stress, the container will fill quickly.
  • The size of the container varies from person to person and can change daily.
  • As stress fills our container, if we do not do anything to relieve that stress, the container overflows.
  • The stress container has a tap at its base. The tap represents ways to relieve stress to stop the container from overflowing. Finding ways to relieve stress is essential.

This supports an approach that looks for immediate relief of circumstantial stress. Rightly so, as it is first aid. Chronic stress is dealt with by professional support, assuming it is available without a long waiting list.

Broad Well-Meaning Advice Is Precisely That

Stress, wellbeing, productivity, leadership and change are at the forefront of many social media posts and keynote talks.

Resilience is the buzzword often used, and “thought leadership” on the subject seems to be abundant on platforms like LinkedIn, management communities, and HR communities.

Let me attempt to sum up:

Don’t

  • Think of stress as a crisis
  • Overthink
  • Dwell on things

Do

  • Embrace stress, see it as your friend
  • Be motivated and inspired with my inspirational story of how I overcame adversity
  • Take comfort and inspiration in some of these famous quotes
  • Follow these simple productivity hacks
  • Remind yourself it is okay not to be okay
  • Reframe the issue
  • Learn relaxation techniques
  • Meditate
  • Practice yoga
  • Play games or take a course
  • Practice gratitude
  • Eat well
  • Sleep well
  • Hydrate
  • Get exercise
  • Meet people

Can you spot the overarching picture? They all either focus on circumstantial stress or do not tell you how to deal positively adapt and manage chronic stress.

They assume you have the know-how. But when were you taught to reframe your thoughts? When were you shown how to avoid overthinking? When were you shown the many ways we disengage, how to spot them and address them?

You get the picture. Most of the information out there focuses on what you should be doing but doesn’t tell you how.

You See, If There Is One Thing I'd Like You to Know, It Is This

If people do not have the essential skills of resilience, then they only really have four strategies when it comes to stress:

  1. Put up (and become sick)
  2. Shut up (and become ill, disengaged)
  3. Give up (leave)
  4. Step up (and change)

Where would you say your people are? Do they have the skills they need to step up? In my experience of training and coaching thousands of people from all walks of life, I would say no. From our work where we measure that impact, it is clear that this gap is impacting both performance and wellbeing.

The question to ask is not, “Am I not resilient?” The question is, “Do we have the skills we need to be resilient and create the conditions where people thrive?” If you do not have those skills, expect people to pursue strategies 1-3, as stepping up is not an option. Let me remind you of strategies 1-3:

  1. Put up (and become sick)
  2. Shut up (and become ill, disengaged)
  3. Give up (leave)

I’ll Leave You With A Few Questions To Consider:

  • Do you see circumstantial stress or chronic stress developing in others?
  • Are your well-being programs providing relief from the symptoms of stress in the workplace or giving people the skills to tackle the root cause?
  • Do you see circumstantial stress or chronic stress in yourself?
  • What are you doing to build your resilience?

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